Bruce Millington’s column in the Racing Post last Thursday made for fascinating reading. He revisited the tricky topic of how horse racing should attempt to reinvent itself towards financial security in the 21st century, and used as a blueprint the way cricket has been revolutionised by the introduction of T20.
The piece was accompanied by a video of what appeared to be David Lloyd (dressed as Johnny Cash) and Freddie Flintoff (resplendent as Elvis) singing Sweet Caroline to the soused and fancy-dressed masses at Edgebaston during the T20 finals. Millington was right – everyone seemed to be having a damn good time.
So why not, he reasoned, stage a fancy dress horse racing meeting “that is unashamedly about pandering to a group of people hell-bent on having a good time that does not involve tweed, RPRs or binoculars?”
But here is where I differ to The Guvnor of the Racing Post: horse racing is not the same as cricket.
I’ve been to the cricket, and the rugby, and the football, and of course the races. My friends will tell you that I have often taken a drink at these events and (don’t tell The Wife) sometimes I’ve even been merry, tipsy, sluiced, mullered and three-sheets-to-the-wind. So I’m not against having a drink or a good time at a sporting event.
My reservations stem from two fundamental problems that horse racing has to deal with (and has so far failed to deal with in my opinion) that never arise in the other sports mentioned:
1) At a big race meeting punters grasp at small pockets of space like refugees clinging to a raft. The last time I went to Gold Cup Day at Cheltenham (and sadly, even though I love the place, it will be the last time I go to Gold Cup Day unless they do something to change the oppressive crush) I watched some of the races on distant TV screens whilst perched amongst shrubbery. There is nowhere to call your own, unlike the other sports where everyone gets a seat, and this constant fight for territory makes us feel unsettled and frustrated. Yes, at some meetings you can purchase a piece of territory for a further extortionate sum, but for the common man the vibe remains uncomfortable and claustrophobic.
2) Racing cannot avoid its set-piece nature. In any half-hour window there might be only a couple of minutes of sport, and yet an awful lot to achieve – getting a drink, looking at them in the paddock, getting a bet on, and finding a place to watch the race. Again, this compression makes people stressed, and then it’s the little things that become big – why does it take me ten minutes to go the loo when it’s only 50 yards away? Why does this bar serving one hundred thirsty customers only have two staff? Why does this racecourse with a comfortable capacity of 40,000 sell 70,000 tickets?
Racecourses could, and should, do more to alleviate these issues and if the British Horseracing Authority is interested I am happy to offer my consultancy services for the appropriate fee. Many of the solutions are remarkably simple and cheap, but they will never change the fact that horse racing is structurally different to other sports.
On my journey Around The Races In Eighty Days (still, remarkably, available from all good bookshops, but cheapest on my website!) I discovered friendly atmospheres at a majority of our racecourses. There were some fantastic parties out there too, including Grand National day at Aintree which managed to bottle the excitement of the big race, and then drink that bottle dry, without crossing the line. People were certainly in high spirits, but it managed to be a joyous celebration of our sport.
And that is where Millington’s suggestion falls down when he says “You would promote it in such a way that nobody with a serious interest in racing would feel the slightest inclination to go, but for those who want to have a day on the lash, a right good laugh and the odd bet in an atmosphere where you are obliged to leave your dignity at the entrance, it could be a lot of fun.”
I’m all for having a beer and a right good laugh at the races, but I am there for the racing as well. If you don’t have an interest in it you will quickly realise that it’s not much fun to queue for twenty minutes in a moshpit to secure a crap and expensive pint of lager and you’d rather be down the pub.
There was also, sadly, a significant minority of racecourses where I discovered a slightly ugly undercurrent. I’m not sure it would be wise to encourage people to drink even more, and if racegoers can behave moronically in a suit allowing them to dress as clowns may only encourage them to behave even more like clowns. These are places where where you might think a lack team colours would make everyone get along just fine, but they suffered dreadfully due to the problems outlined above.
One of the others problems of racing (like most sports) is that the people who run it and write about it do not experience it like the paying customers. Senior executives often have hospitality suites or private boxes to ease the crush, and the racing media have access-all-areas passes and press boxes to observe the action from. Trust me, as someone who was on the front line for 80 days, it can be hard work (and I use the phrase ‘hard work’ in the loosest sense).
Racing needs to stop being ashamed of its history and traditions and acknowledge its structural differences. It is not like other sports that can be homogenised into an all-you-can-drink, scream-fun-in-your-face-and-then-stick-on-Bananarama-afterwards package, and nor should it aspire to be. Nick Rust, head honcho at the BHA, may temporarily gain the one million new vertical drinkers he is looking for, but in the process lose two million real fans.
So my message to Bruce Millington, Nick Rust and anyone else who is listening: leave the karaoke, fancy-dress booze-fests to sports that are suited to them and instead concentrate on making the horse racing experience more comfortable and enjoyable for all.